What We Forget to Remember
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What We Forget to Remember

Remembrance Day is an opportunity to reconsider the true meaning of sacrifice and heroism in Canada's wars.

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Remembrance Day is one of the new battlegrounds of the culture war. Are you a patriot, supporting our men and women at home and overseas as they defend Canada? Or are you some kind of hippie peacenik?

You’d better choose a side. It’s all been laid out nicely. Were grandpa and his pals liberators in the fight against Hitler and the Nazis? Or did they deliberately drop bombs on European cathedrals and hospitals?

Keeping the argument simple, and keeping people ignorant about Canadians and their wars, has worked well for both sides. It helps that most of us know war only from the media and from family stories. We don’t have real memories of war, even in Afghanistan. We carry around a mish-mash of propaganda, fiction, and factoids, heavily filtered by our own ideologies.

What do we not “remember” on Remembrance Day?

We don’t remember much of the stuff that was actively censored during the war: the U-boat attacks in the St. Lawrence River and the Gulf of St. Lawrence that killed about 300 people; the big army mutinies in B.C., Ontario, and Quebec in the fall and early winter of 1944; the Japanese balloon bombs that drifted from the Pacific Ocean as far east as Detroit in early 1945.

We don’t remember how the military tried to cover up the mistakes of its deployment of troops to Hong Kong. Or how poor the Canadian officer corps really was in both world wars.

And, as Jeff Keshen showed six years ago in his book Saints, Sinners and Soldiers, the war life of women has been re-written in a way that’s unfair.

The standard story today is that women were liberated by the war, at least temporarily, “allowed” into the work force during the world wars. After the Second World War, they didn’t want to go back, and, after a decade of dormancy during the 1950s, the women’s movement burst upon us.

Some women did flourish during the war. Many more resented working long shifts in factories while still being expected to do all the work they already did at home.

In fact, with so many men being on the move—whether to join the armed forces, get one of the thousands of new jobs, or heading to Ottawa to work in the war bureaucracy—women were saddled with far more child-rearing, home responsibilities, and trouble.

Relationships fell apart. Juvenile delinquency became an ugly problem during the war, divorce rates went up, and sexually transmitted infections went into epidemic mode. When men came back from overseas, they were usually in bad shape. For every 10 who went, one man died, two were wounded, and the rest suffered from varying degrees of post-traumatic stress disorders and other psychiatric illnesses.

And even if they did come back relatively undamaged, most members of the armed forces were gone for at least three years and as long as six, and had life experiences that were unfathomable to their partners. It must have been almost impossible to re-ignite whatever drew most young couples together.

Women were expected to fix all that. And to do it quietly.

“Sacrifice” and “heroism” are the buzzwords of any commemoration of those who served in war. Sacrifice has developed a whole new meaning. My grandfather’s 19-year-old cousin killed in 1918 by a stray shell is a “hero” because his number came up. I’m supposed to believe that he gave himself as a “sacrifice” to stop the spread of Prussian militarism, when I know damn well he wanted to get back to his home on Georgian Bay.

In fact, not everyone who puts on a uniform is a hero. Nor is every poor bastard who gets blown up by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan and ends up in a hearse on the section of Highway 401 between Trenton and Toronto that’s been renamed the “Highway of Heroes.” Heroism involves a certain amount of choice, fearlessness, even gambling. Getting blown up in Afghanistan was, in many cases, more a matter of bad luck.

On Friday, crowds turned out at the National War Memorial, at the Cenotaph in front of Old City Hall, and at the war memorials that were built across the country after the First World War to make some sense out of the senseless, to give dignity and meaning to slaughter and waste, and to pray that we can someday control the vicious animal side of human behaviour.

The old vets of the Second World War were there, artifacts of a world that we can never know. They’ll be joined by the young Afghanistan vets who are still trying to figure out what their war was about and waiting to learn if it was all just a waste of time, sweat, and blood.

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